Slow Food, Veblen, and Easy Cheese

This is an essay I wrote for a globalization of food sociology course- I was asked to consider whether the Slow Food movement was a matter of conspicuous consumption.  Believe it or not, I argue that it’s more than that!  I believe that Slow Food is helping to improve access to and knowledge of not only healthy, local food, but agricultural and culinary knowledge that many people have lost with the advent of convenience foods.  Let me know what you think!  I’m also going to cross-post this to the other blog I write for, slowfoodvassar.wordpress.com.  Go check it out!

slow-food

Slow Food is an international movement that’s organized around the concept of good, clean, fair food:  good meaning good for the earth and for your health; clean meaning free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals and practices; and fair meaning that everyone in the supply chain receives a suitable wage for their work.  It has deep roots in Italian culture and gastronomy; it emphasizes learning about hereditary farming and food processing practices in order to counteract the increasingly frantic pace of modern life.  The movement itself has four main goals:  to study material culture and disseminate that knowledge; to reintroduce people to the pleasure of food and drink; to preserve agricultural heritage and diversity; and to protect both conscious consumer and conscientious producer by spreading knowledge about where to get inexpensive but high-quality food.

Slow Food is often criticized for being an elitist movement interested solely in finding the latest and most obscure (read:  most expensive) haute cuisine.  The image of latter-day yuppies wandering around farmer’s markets with their bags full of kabocha and mesclun invokes the image of Veblen’s ‘conspicuous consumption’people showing off their wealth by indulging in the latest food trend.  However, I argue that the Slow Food movement is neither a part of nor an offshoot of conspicuous consumption.  Rather, it’s an attempt to reverse what the sociologist Norbert Elias calls ‘the civilizing process’:  a centuries-long effort to appear more civilized by distancing oneself from nature that puts food production, processing, and cooking behind closed doors.  While it is indeed more pleasant not to have to carve beef quarters at the table, this has the unpleasant consequence of making people less knowledgeable about their food and where it comes from, which leads to the industrial, bland, questionably healthy food that makes up the vast majority of the first world’s food systems today.

The first task of Slow Food is an attempt to directly counteract that loss of knowledge by education and dissemination:  Slow Food aims to educate people about material culture, food, and taste.  In Carlo Petrini’s words,  “the rise and the spread of ignorance about food is a social plague that opens that way for the most reckless fraudsters and hinders the growth of a renewed, aware agriculture” (Petrini, 78):  knowledge is, as always, a key component in fighting the good fight.  Slow Food has indeed, through its workshops for all ages, disseminated a vast quantity of knowledge about agricultural history.  Children who have grown up only knowing the smell of apples from shampoo and the shape of fish from fish sticks may never even think of broadening their culinary horizons; to this end, Slow Food Italy sponsored a “Taste Week” in 1992 to expose children and young people to flavors they might not otherwise experience or seek out.

People who don’t understand what it means to eat ‘good food’ are more likely to fall prey to the nutritionism discussed by Michael Pollan, relying on either a government that’s often operating under the influence of special interests or the food companies themselves, who are under no obligation to ensure the health of their consumers. In order to become informed consumers who can lobby for change in the food system—either through activism or through voting with their dollars—people need to learn about their food system.  Slow Food’s ultralocal approach to organizing—essentially letting each local chapter do what they feel is the best way to educate the people in their community about their local food options—plays to its strengths, with locals educating locals about local food.

Obviously there are limits to what a non-profit organization like Slow Food can do; Petrini’s book (and much of the movement itself) focuses on educating people about agricultural heritage, but an equally important part of food knowledge is teaching people how to cook it.  For many people, cooking is not a skill that they learned from their parents; in a world of instant noodles and microwaveable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, even the simplest of recipes can be indecipherable to someone who has never learned culinary basics.  Fast food is something that is comfortable and easy, especially if you were never taught how to cook your own food.

A number of non-profits such as FoodWorks Two Rivers Center in Vermont have taken the initiative to work with both adults and youth to help them develop culinary and gardening skills that they may not otherwise have had, but Petrini in his book discusses only education about different varieties of food.  Access to (and knowledge of) good, clean, fair food is a step in the right direction, but the practical knowledge of how to go about preparing it is equally as important.  This is an aspect of dissemination of knowledge that Slow Food could improve upon.

Pleasure and knowledge must go hand in hand; as people learn more about taste and are introduced to flavorful heirloom varieties of plants and animals, Slow Food enthusiasts argue that they will rediscover the pleasures of eating.  Slow Food aims “to research and promote the pleasures of gastronomy and conviviality,” (Petrini, 13) in other words reintroducing people to the pleasure of eating good food together.  This is the aspect of the movement that most critics point to as a bourgeois/yuppie attempt to justify sitting around eating fancy asparagus; however, the enjoyment of food is something that doesn’t need to be—and indeed shouldn’t be—restricted to those with means.

Crotty and Germov speak of food trends catching on as those with means and cultural capital make their food of choice stylish.  They use the example of yuppies popularizing takeout (Crotty and Germov, 252) but the example can just as easily be extended to include Slow Food enthusiasts popularizing farmer’s markets.  However, this is a process that will happen regardless of the ethical suitability or lack thereof of the food, so why allow it to delegitimize a movement?  The enjoyment of good food in a friendly group—whether takeout, slow, or otherwise—is something that the Slow Food movement aims to encourage.  It is able to reach a broader audience by mobilizing groups with cultural capital to make local food seem more stylish in addition to more accessible, and since it aims to make good quality, low price food a priority in people’s lives, this trend is playing to their strengths.  Perhaps this would be a valid criticism (and example of conspicuous consumption) if they set out to make the food expensive and exclusive, but Slow Food is very much about broadening tastes and lowering barriers to access for good, local food.

Part of this is access to good, local food is preserving that food through promotion and education.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, 75% of biodiversity in agricultural products has been lost, including species of both animals and plants (Petrini, 87).  Slow Food premiered the presidia system to preserve methods and species that are dying out; it’s an ingenious system that publicizes certain ‘endangered’ foods in order to keep them from dying out.

It draws upon human nature towards a productive end:  people want to help; they are drawn to ‘exclusive’ products (despite Slow Food’s desire to avoid ‘cultifying’ certain foods); and, especially in the case of those affiliated with Slow Food, they care about this biodiversity and the publicity generated by the presidia enables them to mobilize their efforts and dollars in a productive direction.  Slow Food, being a diverse movement tailored by nature to each of its local chapters and not having a strong overarching governing body, would not have the resources or the materials to have a seed bank; rather, the dispersed nature of the presidia and the preservation-through-consumption mentality allows them to take full advantage of the benefits of both these products and of their social networks.   This is a system that plays to its strengths and addresses its weaknesses:  Slow Food is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and focusing on obscure heirloom varieties, but this seizes upon that and uses it to generate positive change.

Indeed, by making these dying-out products more accessible to the masses, Slow Food aims to preserve them.  Part of this publicizing process is advocating for both the consumer and honest producer by spreading knowledge about where to get the best quality, low price food.  Rather than attempting to make money off of a small number of ‘exclusive’ foods, the Slow Food movement rather endeavors to raise consumer awareness of traditional foods in their own specific locale:  through promoting knowledge of agricultural heritage, “[savoring] its products without turning them into cult objects,” (Petrini, 59) people can reconnect with their surroundings and engage with the environment in a meaningful way.

Slow Food is actively wary of making food a status symbol, conscious of the Alba truffles that drew a large number of gastrotourists, leading to a month-long market full of cheap imitators that inundated the local market and “doing a great disservice to the quality of the excellent Alba truffles, a genuine local specialty of which only the name now survives” (Petrini, 58).  Slow Food’s loose organization lends it well to this dispersed method of access to good food; each small area organization can devote their resources to gaining knowledge of the locally-oriented farms and producers in their own area.

This tenet is perhaps the strongest argument against a comparison between Slow Food and Veblen’s exclusivity and conspicuous wastefulness argument; rather than reserving the nicest varieties for the very rich or well-connected, Slow Food aims to make it accessible and affordably priced for everyone.  On a fundamental level, the goals of the Slow Food movement are incompatible with the ‘pecuniary canons of taste’; it may feel just as good to eat an heirloom tomato as it does to eat off of fine china, but fine china makers aren’t trying to make their product inexpensive and universally accessible.

The conspicuous consumption laid out by Veblen in Theory of the Leisure Class argues that conspicuous wastefulness informs our ideas and conceptions of what is good and beautiful with the things that are labor intensive and superfluous.  Articles are valued because they are inefficient in terms of time and effort; handmade objects are more prized than industrially produced ones because handmade objects have necessarily had more effort invested in them from the beginning (Veblen, 127).  There are several differences between this idea and Slow Food’s advocacy of local food; first of all, Veblen emphasizes that there is no difference in the serviceability of an industrially produced spoon as opposed to one shaped painstakingly by a craftsman or artisan.  While this is indeed true of spoons, the same cannot be said for food.

Food, regardless of whether it’s produced industrially or otherwise, is naturally more labor intensive than a spoon:  it requires large quantities of water, soil, transportation infrastructure, food safety apparatus, and other miscellaneous resources.  Moreover, spoons are very much the same all over the world, and there are no adverse environmental, social, or economic ill-effects associated with a lack of biodiversity in spoons.  In contrast, a loss of biodiversity in species, food-producing or otherwise, can have drastic effects on ecosystems and health, making the remaining breeds much more susceptible to disease and leading to an increased depletion of soil as specialized breeds are farmed on it year after year.

All spoons have essentially the same effect:  spoon is produced.  Food moves from plate to mouth.  However, the effects of a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano versus a can of Easy Cheese are drastically disparate:  whereas the production of Parmigiano Reggiano has helped to preserve an otherwise declining species of cow in Italy and is produced in theory by skilled craftspeople in an environmentally sound manner (Petrini, 88), Easy Cheese is a semisolid processed cheese product made from cows raised an industrial food system that has perpetuated immeasurable damage against the environment and society, and is a registered trademark of Kraft, a multinational food and beverage conglomerate.  Although food and spoons can both act as status symbols, the environmental conditions surrounding their production and consumption render them incomparable in terms of conspicuous consumption; one’s choice of food has deep political and economic ramifications that is not reflected in the comparison to spoons.

People may feel good both when they eat with hand-carved spoons and when they choose to eat Parmigiano Reggiano, but the difference in ramifications of each of these choices makes a choice in sustainable food more than a simple status symbol.  By encouraging people to educate themselves and others about their food, Slow Food is helping them to reconnect with a part of life that many in modern society have been distanced from, despite the fact that that has enormous and deleterious effects on our environment and our health.  Returning to the children who only knew the shape of fish from fish sticks, Slow Food seeks to bridge the divide in the industrial food system between producers and consumers.  A central question to ask is, where has my food come from?  This deceptively revolutionary question directly addresses both the industrial food system, one shrouded in mystery and registered trademarks and legal barriers, and the civilizing process that has brought us to where our food system is today.

Norbert Elias describes a process by which European society gradually distanced itself more and more from its food as a mark of its civilization in the post-medieval world;  industrialization of the food system is the natural heir of this process, and the Slow Food movement seeks actively to counteract this distance.  An examination of European guides to manners reveals that a practice once considered badges of honor reserved for heads of household—the cutting of the meat—gradually fell out of vogue as European society moved into the modern era.

Elias likens this to people seeking to “suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal,’… likewise [suppressing] such characteristics in their food” (Elias, 120).    As society gets more civilized, the process of preparing meat becomes distasteful as opposed to glorious; instead of reveling in the domination of man over beast, “specialists take care of [meat cutting] in the shop or the kitchen” (Elias, 121).  That phrase—‘let the specialists take care of it’—is the very loss of knowledge that the Slow Food movement seeks to counteract.  When people lose connection with and knowledge about the very thing that sustains them from day to day—to invoke Christian scripture, from our daily bread— that is a dangerous time for everyone involved.  That’s when we start keeping our cattle in massive manure lagoons and going weeks without using our stoves and spending more money lining the pockets of bankers than farmers.  That’s when our children don’t learn where their food come from or how to cook it, because we ourselves never learned.  That’s when we voluntarily disenfranchise ourselves, disavow our culinary heritage, and tell ourselves that ‘it will all get taken care of for us.’

That disempowerment is the very thing that the Slow Food movement is working against.  Through its study of material culture and dissemination of that knowledge, its attempts to preserve our agricultural history and our local producers, its efforts to get us to all gather around the table for dinner and just enjoy a good meal together, it’s trying to make food a central part of life again.  It’s trying to connect us with a culinary and agricultural heritage that many in the first world have been disconnected from entirely.  To call it conspicuous consumption is to reduce the movement to its barest, most fundamental component—the enjoyment of good food—and to judge that as something inadequate and frivolous.  And if that isn’t a perpetuation of the unsustainable, Easy-Cheese and CAFO beef McStatus-Quo—if that isn’t an attempt to defeat a legitimate grassroots movement through microaggression—then I don’t know what is.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Slow Food, Veblen, and Easy Cheese | ChristianBookBarn.com

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